Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” Sneak Peek

“It’s the perfect way to tell the story of Pinocchio,” the Oscar winner told IndieWire.


For Guillermo del Toro, the issue wasn’t why stop motion suited his new version of Pinocchio, but why it had never been tried before. Finally, Carlo Collodi’s enduring fable about a wooden doll longing to be a real boy cries out for the tactile, handcrafted technique.

“It’s the perfect way to tell the story,” del Toro told IndieWire after sneaking a peek at the first 38 minutes of his Netflix film (premiering this weekend at the London Film Festival ahead of its closing special presentation on the Animation Is film festival on October 29). “Everyone is a puppet. Being animated makes Pinocchio’s existence completely naturalistic as you tell the story. I’m surprised, happy it’s never been tackled like this before. It comes so naturally into the story.”

But it took more than 15 years to realize del Toro’s passion project, the first animated feature film he ever directed. (“Pinocchio” was directed by stop-motion vet Mark Gustafson from “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”) What sparked it was a glimpse of famed illustrator Gris Grimly’s work for an issue of The Adventures of Pinocchio. from 2003. “His Pinocchio has an unruly, almost natural force, an untamed essence,” said del Toro. “This drawing was it for me. Form is function and history.”

Del Toro’s version is set in Mussolini’s fascist Italy in the 1930s, where everyone acts like wooden puppets. The alcoholic woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) mourns the death of his son Carlo. Years later, he carves a replacement from the trunk of a pine tree next to his son’s grave. But that bothers Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), the imaginary narrator who lives in the tree and writes his memoir. Suddenly he takes an interest in the wooden boy who has come to life and accompanies him on his strange adventures. Only Pinocchio (newcomer Gregory Mann) is no Carlo: he’s rebellious, casually cruel, and overly curious, which constantly gets him into trouble.

PINOCCHIO, Guillermo del Toro, Netflix

Guillermo del Toro directing Pinocchio


“Most of the others [‘Pinocchio’] It’s about obedience and we’re about disobedience because that’s a major factor in the incarnation,” del Toro added. “And that becoming human is not about changing yourself or others, but about understanding. For me, the first step to conscience and soul is disobedience. It is the difference between ideas and ideology. And ideas are constructed from experience, compassion and understanding. And ideology is something you are given and told to obey blindly.”

This cautionary tale of authoritarianism was very important to del Toro, completing a “war trilogy” that began with “The Devil’s Spine” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — making it all the more timely given our global political situation. But his fascination with “Pinocchio” goes back to childhood, when he and “Frankenstein” fell under the spell of texts about poisoned father-son relationships. “They are both born to indifferent fathers, which explains the relationship with my father,” he said. The death of del Toro’s father after winning the Best Picture Oscar for Shape of Water had a profound impact on Pinocchio. “You’re thrown into a world you barely understand,” he said. “Father-son stories are so fundamental. [Stop-motion] became a tool to talk about how precious and fragile we are as human beings and how much we need each other.”

This is also conveyed musically through songs composed by Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) with lyrics by the director and Roeban Katz. While Desplat requested a professional singer for Pinocchio, del Toro insisted that Mann sing as well, as his fragile voice complemented the stop motion.

Guillermo del Toros Pinocchio – (pictured) Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor). Cr: Netflix © 2022

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”


Stop motion has long been a powerful force in the director’s life, beginning with his admiration for Willis O’Brien’s animation in King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s in Jason and the Argonauts. Del Toro revels in the “perfectly imperfect” artistry of puppetry and world building and wanted to capture that in Pinocchio. But he also wanted to be boldly naturalistic, making stop motion more like live action.

“You have Laika, who, to put it bluntly, pushed the medium’s technical tools, and now you can be more expressive a decade into the future,” del Toro said. “So right from the start I wanted to do something as daring – staging the camera and story as live action, following the puppets with the camera and lighting as the actors. And we need to let that animation breathe and be less fluid. That’s why we shot to 2s [two frames]. The acting is naturalistic and not pantomimic. We said jokingly, let’s not act silently, let’s act on an actor’s studio level where you watch them think.”

This consisted of micro-gestures, failed actions and silent moments of just listening. The director marveled at Geppetto’s trembling lower lip or a puppet that took three tries to close a door. He called this the beautiful fleetingness of stop motion.

“And one of the principles was animation should infuse characters with anima,” del Toro said, referring to the philosophical concept of the soul. “It’s not about hitting cool key poses. It’s about conveying the emotions and directing the animators as actors. We aggressively built in accidents. But you have to reproduce these accidents with the puppeteer at 24 frames per second.”

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - (LR) Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) and Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley). Cr: Netflix © 2022

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”


The animation was created at ShadowMachine in Portland, Oregon as part of a 1,000-day shoot, with additional sequences shot at the director’s Centro Internacional de Animación stop-motion studio at his home in Guadalajara, Mexico. Legendary English animation studio Mackinnon & Saunders created the puppets with old-fashioned ball and socket body fittings and head fittings with gears like a Swiss watch. Georgina Hayns (a Laika fixture) served as the lead on character creation. This brought the artist closer to the puppet by subtly controlling the eyes and mouth.

However, the Pinocchio doll was made in a high-tech way with 3D printed body and face replacements. The entire body was made of metal by Mackinnon & Saunders and designed with many joints. This allowed the doll to move like a wooden boy and show expressive gestures. “We wanted him to stand out from all the other puppets,” del Toro said.

There are also two fantastic masked creatures of the forest: the forest spirit and her sister Death (both voiced by Tilda Swinton). The forest spirit, which is blue and almost demonic in appearance, serves as a more spiritual version of the Blue Fairy, while her charcoal, dragon-like brother represents a darker force of nature. Del Toro drew inspiration from Mexican folk art for these designs and promised that their presence would heighten the emotions in Act III.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - (LR) Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio


Overall, the director was satisfied with his first foray into stop motion, suggesting it’s the closest thing to a carnival troupe he’s experienced. “The other thing was that a lot of animators came in junior positions and we agreed to give them a chance and a chance on the main characters and see them grow,” he added. “And to start the studio in Mexico for the big moment that happens with stop motion in Guadalajara.”

Del Toro thinks it’s a fabulous year for stop motion. While Pinocchio (which hits theaters in November before streaming in December) is a strong contender for the animated feature Oscar, there are two other hopefuls: Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild (Netflix, co-written and produced with Jordan Peele) and, if appropriate, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, director Dean Fleischer Camp’s hybrid mockumentary (A24). Del Toro also hailed the legendary Phil Tippett’s adult horror project, Mad God (Shudder), as “a wild Freudian/Jungian offspring.”

The director senses renewed international interest in stop motion, particularly among younger animators. “And they all come out with this clear idea that animation is a film, not a genre, and that it’s an incredibly powerful, expressive, and emotional tool. What you want to do is put some flowers down for the next generation to pick up. And we do.”

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Lindsay Lowe

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